Doctor Who - Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution Of The Daleks
After three blistering episodes, the newest series of Doctor Who hit its first hurdle with this two-part Dalek romp, the script writing debut of scipt editor Helen Raynor.
It seems to be the case that many episodes of Who are written by Russell T Davies handing down a list of concepts, setting etc. to a writer - essentially he visualises a trailer, and gets someone else to write it. To some extent this is a good thing, in that he is a fountain of good ideas and many of the writers are able to flesh them out wonderfully. Where he has chosen to have a writer adapt one of their Who tales from other media into an episode, Russell has demonstrated similar good taste - Rob Shearmans "Dalek" from Series one is a beautifully realised execution of a thrillingly simple idea - a lone dalek having a nervous breakdown in a military base (..and Paul Cornells upcoming two part adaptation of his own Seventh Doctor novel Human Nature is apparently marvellous). Having appeared a few times since then, it was time for the Daleks to do something a bit more inventive than show up at the end of the series with an army to have their plans of world domination swiftly curtailed. Davies' vision for the episode is certainly audacious, but Raynor never strikes an easy balance between the various elements she's been handed down to work with.
The plot involves the Cult Of Skaro resurfacing in depression-era New York, and somehow scraping together the technology from wireless radios and zoetropes (presumably) to combine their own DNA with that of a human's. Despite their strict rules about racial purity, the Cult Of Skaro have come to the conclusion that they must adapt and evolve to survive, their previous plans at annihilating all opposition having come to very little. Their slaves - a bunch of people they've turned into pigs, for some reason - are kidnapping people from Hooverville, a shanty town in Central Park full of tramps with hearts of gold where The Doctor and Martha have just turned up, anxious to learn what's going on.
It's exciting to have the Daleks involved in a proper bonkers scheme again, as their most recent appearance in the show was fairly underwhelming, and their plan a bit derivative of their previous plan ("we'll get loads of us, then shoot everything on Earth!"). It harks back to old series stories such as "Remembrance of the Daleks", and this two-parter feels very much like the old series. Despite the episode's sumptuous visuals, the Dalek laboratory is pleasingly old-school, with lots of glowing orbs and chemistry sets and nothing that looks like it'd be very useful at all. There's a handy group of "rebels", for The Doctor to ally himself with. The pacing is also fairly similar - if you look at "Daleks In Manhattan" as episodes one and two and "Evolution Of The Daleks" as three and four, they are beset by the same problems that plagued the old series. For example, after setting up the scenario in episode one, fuck all happens in episode two or three apart from a brief build to a cliffhanger (even in something as good as "The Caves Of Androzani", episode three is mostly some toss about Doctor Who going off in a spaceship and then crashing it), and then everything goes bananas in episode four and you're left feeling more than a little confused and short changed by the whole affair.
"Daleks In Manhattan" introduces us to an absurd, larger than life New York where everyone has Guys N Dolls accents and converse entirely in cliches. Sort of like the first half hour of King Kong, only substantially cheaper. The impoverished inhabitants of Hooverville are led by Solomon, who even breaks a loaf of bread in half at one point just incase the reference had eluded any of the eight year olds in the audience. They gain employment wherever possible, even taking wages as low as a dollar a day to work on the construction of the Empire State Building, whose shadow they live in. They are shown living in the shadow of the Empire State Building fifty or so times aswell. But they're POOR! Do you SEE what is WRONG WITH SOCIETY? Well, something else is wrong with society too - it's being run by Daleks! Who intend to attach the panelling off their arses onto the top to guide electricity into some big fuck off barmy machine they've got. But not before they've conducted THE FINAL EXPERIMENT - one of splicing the tentacled creature inside Dalek Sec's metal body with the very human gaffer of the building work, whose natty suit and two tone brogues the resultant creature will retain. This human / dalek, as MORONICALLY revealed on the cover of that weeks Radio Times, looks like an inside out arsehole covered in squids' dicks. Which makes this the fourth episode in a row featuring a weird ugly alien monster. There's been Rhino Face, Helmet Face, Carrionites, best of all Macra, and now dick-arse-face. It's getting a bit ho-hum, really, with Mark Gatiss the stupid gigantic upside down scorpion man, The Angry Sun and killer scarecrows still to come. These are undoubtedly all better monsters than say, The "Fucking Bloody Fucking Fucking" Slitheen, The Mighty "Fucking" Jagrafess and The "For Christ's Sake" Moxx of Balhoon, but I'm getting a bit bored of monster episodes. If this series doesn't come up with at least one bendy time travel story like "Fathers Day" or "Girl In The Fireplace", I'll be a million sad smiley faces.
In "Evolution Of The Daleks", the dick-arse-face Dalek man begins to develop a conscience, and realises what kind of a beast he's been in the past and what wonderful creatures these humans are, their minds full of possibility and wonder. This brief glimmer of potential humanity in the genetic mutant convinces the Doctor that it's the philanthropic thing to do to aid in the Daleks plan to pump a load of brain-wiped corpses with Dalek-Human DNA and let them live on Jupiter, or something. This is the excuse for much of "episode three"'s running about, and it isn't a very convincing one. I longed for even the slow-witted Mickey Smith to pop out from behind a piece of mad-scientist equipment and have a whisper in The Doctor's ear - "if it involves HELPING DALEKS, it's probably not a VERY GOOD IDEA. It's not likely to PAN OUT VERY WELL. There ought to be CERTAIN ALARM BELLS RINGING IN YOUR MIND." The remaining Daleks are themselves starting to lose faith in their glorious leader, now that he looks like an extra from a production of Bugsy Malone put on by people with inside out arses covered in dicks for heads and keeps pausing to ponder the simple wonder of a ladybird going along a leaf, or whatever. Of course all this involves them interacting quite a lot with The Doctor, and given their history it's a bit of a stretch of the imagination that they don't just exterminate him on the spot. After spending quite a long time hiding at the back so as to not be seen, The Doctor strides out and bids the Daleks good day. In order to maintain a sense of high drama whilst not furthering the plot too much, he goes mental and tells them to bloody well exterminate him if they think they're hard enough. The dramatic oomph of this scene is undermined by the fact that they could have done easily any number of times by now and wouldn't The Doctor just regenerate anyway? He could end up stuck in the same bad mess, but with some whole new confusing face and his clothes would most likely be uncomfortably tight, so that wouldn't help anything. Around this time the pig-men are attacking Hooverville, for reasons that haven't really stuck in my head. The whole "pig men" fiasco seems very much like something Russell T Davies has barked down the phone at Helen Raynor whilst brainstorming, high on lemonade and sherbert. They just don't work. Why are the Daleks' slaves pig men? Was that really the simplest course of action with their primitive technology? Why, or indeed how, have the Daleks gone about fitting them all out with matching boiler suits? It's really all very daft.
I think it's also worth noting that David Tennant, much as he's improved in his performance this series, just doesn't do "uh oh, daleks! oh.... shite!" shots very well. There's a certain look of morbid fear passing across the Doctor's face that has always been pretty integral to the threat they've posed for me (Christopher Eccleston did it perfectly), and David Tennant's yet to do it very well. Ho hum. He has added a lot of gravitas to his persona as the Doctor though, and this is pretty much all that gets us through most of the talky-bits. It feels like every stalling tactic is being used to pad out the episode - even the brief loss of the sonic screwdriver, a device that hadn't cropped up for a good three episodes. The second half of "Evolution..." (our "Episode Four" of sorts) steps up the pace a bit, with The Doctor grabbing onto the lightning rod atop the Empire State Building as it conducts energy into the new Dalek/Human clones (I think, I'm not sure I ever really understood what was going on in this episode) in order to infuse them with a little bit of his own DNA. Given that they were all hooked up to machines that the electricity was simply powering, I've got absolutely no idea how this would work, and it rather stretches the credulity of the episode's science beyond forgiveable sci-fi limits. It sort of takes the credulity, smashes it in half, and throws both halves as far as they can go in opposite directions and then rings up Russell T Davies and says "is this OK?" and Russell T Davies replies "ARE THERE PIG MEN? IS THERE A MUSICAL NUMBER? THEN IT'S GREAT! HAVE IT ON MY DESK BY TEATIME". Even as The Doctor was hugging the pole (ooh er) I thought "I hope they're not having him give them Time Lord DNA that way. It would stink to high heaven if that was what he turned out to be doing". Anyway, this little sprinkle of Time Lord DNA gives the monotonous Human Dalek drones the requisite free will to turn their excellent Dalek-Guns (like a Dalek arm, with a trigger - probably the best bit of the episode. I want one so badly) on their masters in a dramatic theatrical showdown. Which makes them all have a brain explosion and die, I think, I'm not sure why. There's still enough silly fun things going on for the time to pass amiably enough (trouble in the ranks leads to plenty of amusing snidey Dalek chats - it's refreshing to see them being cunning, devious pricks again) but with the novelty of Daleks *in New York! In the 30s! Wheeee!* has worn off, the central plot is clearly blindingly stupid, and linked together by far too many scenes of The Doctor reeling off expository technonsense. I can't even remember why he was waving that jellyfish around. Or why there was a sewer opening in the dressing room of a theatre - is that normal? This is what happens when you let Torchwood writers have a go at writing proper telly, and that should be a lesson learned.
At this point Helen Raynor realised she had still had five minutes left to fill, and had the Doctor save the life of the pig-man so he could go on to live a life of physical shame with his showgirl girlfriend. Had he died, the crummy romance storyline between the two characters might have had a much-needed element of interest, but instead we leave New York with the image of a showgirl being bummed by a grotesque circus freak, and the vain hope that Series Three can recover from this garbled nonsense. I mean, even if you view it as the inevitable brainless blockbuster two-parter of the series, it pales in comparison to last year's Cyberman two-parter, which was by no means perfect but a cut above this toss. While the production remains impressive, the ironing out of the shows minor flaws (poor dialogue, cheap-sounding music, etc - all areas much improved) does little to mask the fundamentally dodgy plot, which leaves me with less desire than ever to see the Daleks return. With Stephen Greenhorn and Chris "I'm off Torchwood, too! Hooray! That's sure to be good!" Chibnall penning upcoming episodes, I suspect RTD might be deliberately placing all the new writers in the middle of the series, with the established names handling the important episodes at the end, in which case we just need to sit on our hands and wait for things to get brilliant again. There is still Captain Jack, Steven Moffat, Derek Jacobi and John Simm to come, after all. But the goodwill earned by the apparent vast improvement in the series in its first three episodes has now been almost entirely pissed away, and all those things had better deliver in a big way. Or I'll WRITE AN ANGRY ARTICLE ABOUT IT ON THE INTERNET, and then they'll be sorry.